The North Atlantic oscillation (NAO) is under current climate conditions the leading mode of atmospheric circulation variability over the North Atlantic region. While the pattern is present during the entire year, it is most important during winter, explaining a large part of the variability of the large-scale pressure field, being thus largely determinant for the weather conditions over the North Atlantic basin and over Western Europe. In this study, a review of recent literature on the basic understanding of the NAO, its variability on different time scales and driving physical mechanisms is presented. In particular, the observed NAO variations and long-term trends are put into a long term perspective by considering paleo-proxy evidence. A representative number of recently released NAO reconstructions are discussed. While the reconstructions agree reasonably well with observations during the instrumental overlapping period, there is a rather high uncertainty between the different reconstructions for the pre-instrumental period, which leads to partially incoherent results, that is, periods where the NAO reconstructions do not agree even in sign. Finally, we highlight the future need of a broader definition of the NAO, the assessment of the stability of the teleconnection centers over time, the analysis of the relations to other relevant variables like temperature and precipitation, as well as on the relevant processes involved. WIREs Clim Change 2012, 3:79–90. doi: 10.1002/wcc.150
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